From Bar Mitzvah to Bar Mitsve By Anthony Mordechai-Tzvi Russell

The first time I heard of a Bar Mitzvah I was eleven. And I wasn't invited to it.

If you are a bespectacled, precocious goyishe nebbishe nudnik of eleven with no friends—Jewish or otherwise—you are not invited to the Bar Mitzvah, and, for many years you will have no idea as to what happens in its sacred confines. 

Your brother, who is not near-sighted and who has many friends—Jewish and otherwise—will certainly know what a Bar Mitzvah is, because it was just another stop in a whirl of school social gaiety.

If you could not tell by now, my childhood friends were more…observers of social gaiety than partakers of it: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Merchant Ivory films and the occasional Vanity Fair Magazine.

Even though we were not Jewish, around when I was eleven or twelve, my mother started to humorously threaten my brothers and I with the prospect of a Bar Mitzvah, because, by her account, it would be the occasion upon which she would throw us out of the house.

The idea was that we would be men, and thus ready to strike out on out own. Understandably, this now gave the concept of a Bar Mitzvah an element of fear entirely different than the one that usually grips thirteen-year-old Jewish hearts.

When I finally did turn thirteen, the only person my mother threw out of the house was my father. With him left my respect for whatever religious establishments had been in my life up to that point: various pastors and ministers who had completely bungled their handling of my parent's separation and eventual divorce. 

Alright, so: true story? When I was thirteen, I did not become a Bar Mitzvah. When I was thirteen, I became the son of a single mother and—oddly enough—the recipient of a long-awaited first phrase in Hebrew, courtesy of the Jewish family in our Napa Valley home school group: Hodu ladonai ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo.

Praise God who is good; His kindness endures forever.

In view of the events in my life at that time, the fact that those were the first words in Hebrew I ever learned now seems rather ironic, as there was obviously was lapse in the kindness of God. 

Up until that point I had been a fervent believer in God and an avid reader of His oeuvre. I knew the Bible inside and out and, like a good nudnik, I publicly prided myself on my knowledge.

There were characters and narratives from the Bible I knew and loved and adored and projected myself onto endlessly and it is from this period of my life that I would draw my yiddishe nomen—Mordechai—as an ardent lover of that sexy epic of the Jews in exile, Megillas Esther.

In a very oddly disconnected obsession, I was also a fanatic about a musical my mother purchased in a re-mastered double VHS set—

Fiddler on the Roof, because, hello...I was a gay child. Come on. Many gay children have their musical, and mine was Fiddler and yes, I shudder to think of the ones this generation admires, because if you think for even a second that Wicked could hold a Shabbes candle to Fiddler, you're deluded and I have no problem telling you so.

These are facts: I found Topol attractive, but let's not discuss that right now. Chava was my favorite sister. Motl the tailor was the most like me for every reason imaginable, and his name is even Motl, which is the diminutive of my yiddishe nomen, Mordechai.

But, because at that point, I had practically no Jews in my life, I only had the vaguest idea of what it was all about beyond a musical.

That was my childhood.

But I was thirteen now, and though I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, my thirteenth year, for what it was worth, was a sort of rite of passage. I knew that God seemed somewhat negligent in his promises and I had to leave the Anatevka of my parent's marriage, my Christian faith and any dearly-held illusions I possessed.

At the tender age of thirteen, I became a fatalist. I held an imaginary cigarette in one hand, a glass of wine in the other and I aspired to be the most creative, educated, erudite and entertaining black person who ever existed in the history of the entire world. 

So now imagine I'm twenty-seven and I'm in New York performing in Cosi fan tutte uptown and I'm on a third date with a rabbi who I'm trying desperately to seduce, and in the midst of my seduction I casually let drop that his neck is like a tower of ivory—which you should know is a direct quote from the Song of Songs, which I secretly read like a Playboy when I was eight.

Later on, I give him the big guns: Hodu ladonai ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo--only, it's basically gibberish because no one has corrected my Hebrew pronunciation for fourteen years. 

In spite of this, that rabbi is now my fiancé and was the unwitting catalyst for my literal, very real rite of passage into adult Jewish life.

I decided I wanted to return to this literary family of mine that I had acquired as a child: the Abrahams and Issacs and Jacobs and Sarahs and Rebeccas and Rachels and Leahs and Moseses and Aarons, and Davids and Solomons and Mordechais and Esthers of my youth.

Like Ruth, I wanted their god to be my god, so I converted, and the Shabbes after the date of my conversion I had a pseudo Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, New York.

I received my first aliya, gave the dvar torah and sponsored a kiddush luncheon of vegan Chinese food which ran out very quickly. Numerous donations celebrating the event were made to the synagogue in my name, Mordechai Tzvi ben Avraham v'Sarah.

I was a Jew now, and knew that I felt a little more nuanced about my relationship to Hashem and that I had to leave the Anatevka of my formerly goyishe existence for new shores. I held an imaginary khumesh in one hand, a tumbler of Manischewitz in the other and aspired to be the most creative, educated, erudite and entertaining black person who ever existed in the history of Judaism...but that's another story for another time.

Eventually, my fiance and I moved to California, where we joined a shul in Berkeley, and after a couple of years, totally out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted to be an educator in the B'nei Mitzvah program.

And I said no, like, a thousand times--how could I? I hadn't even had a Bar Mitzvah myself! But here's the thing: how many generations of Jewish women assisted in the education of Jewish boys for a religious life they could not themselves pursue? Did they let this stop them?

No, and neither could I.

Unlike these generations of strong Jewish women, however, I taught myself how to read trope using an app. Then I made a series of videos with another app using internet pictures of cats to teach children what I had taught myself.

And a couple of weeks ago, I just leyned Torah for the first time at the Bat Mitzvah of one of my students. 

Someday--when I am not too busy assisting children with theirs--I will have a real adult Bar Mitzvah, or as I will term it in the euphonious Ashkenazi accent, a Bar Mitsve.

It will be a portion that has immense meaning for me. My family will be there, especially my brother.

I will attempt to do every Torah reading and the Haftorah reading as well. They will be read in the Asheknazi accent, the accent I heard from old Jews in New York when I first started attending shul, the accent of the Ashkenazi Jews for one thousand years.

I will give a d'var Torah and Chassidic lore pertaining to the portion will be discussed. There will be a decent kiddush luncheon, and a tish on Havdole. Veretski Pass will play and Bruce Bierman will lead the dancing. There will be none of this sloppy "I've been to a few Bar Mitzvahs and I'll guess I'll dance"-type dancing.

There will be singing--real singing-- and drinking--real drinking--and dancing--real dancing. 

A singer of Yiddish and cantorial music and creator of “Convergence,” a multi-media blend of Yiddish and Hebrew songs with African-American spirituals.

The Promise of Being a Man By Joshua Wolf Shenk

I believe in the Bar Mitzvah. I believe in the idea that — you walk in the door a boy, you ascend this stage, you follow a progression—you risk humiliation, or actually enact humiliation—and you leave something else.

But everything attracts its shadow. We naturally seek safety and we are especially avid in moments of potential danger. There is nothing more dangerous than ritual, and so there is nothing so ossified, so caked over, so drained of feeling and authenticity as the traditional rituals. If there is a single unspoken conviction held by the people who lead them, who watch them, who participate in them, it is this: “You can’t hurt me because I’m not even here.”

So if you ask me, what would I want out of my Bar Mitzvah if I did again, I would say: I want the promise. I want to be a man. I’m still waiting, at 42, to feel like a man. I would like to turn the doorknob and walk into a room and be led through a progression of somethings—and lead a progression of somethings—and turn the doorknob walking out and know that I’ve changed.

But if you ask, what would you want, realistically, I would say: I want to take a risk. And the riskiest thing I can think of in a room of Hollywood Jews is to really talk about God.

* * *

In my late twenties, having pursued psychotherapy and psychopharmacology to the ends of Manhattan, I read William James The Varieties of Religious Experience. In this lecture to skeptics, the skeptical James developed the proposition that regardless of its inherent truth, belief is helpful.

But belief in what? “That there is an unseen order,” James answers, “and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

 After James, I came to believe in belief. One melodramatically urgent night on the rocks at Big Sur, I actually heard this voice in my head: “The only way out is through God,” except I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, just what I mean by that word.

The first image that appealed to me was of those three letters as a kind of hyperlink and you press on them and it goes to infinity. This image appealed to me because it suggested that any explication of God whatsoever would be a misconstrual—any part would necessarily be an improper substitute for the whole. In my early yearnings for God consciousness, the priority was not moving toward a good idea but dealing with all the shitty ones. The bearded white man God; the jealous, angry taskmaster God; the stupid God of boundless peace and love.” These ideas of God, it’s like having to sit through The Hangover Part IV and V and VI. But you don’t stop going to the movies because you’ve seen a shitty movie. You don’t give up on God because there are stupid ideas of God.” David Foster Wallace was right: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

I spend a lot of time trying to conceive of God, and I haven’t been successful, in part, probably, because thinking is not the right tool. This is so Jewish. Thinking about a problem that is magnified by thought.

But also so Jewish to enact a known tragedy. So I try. When I prayed I felt dead inside so I asked, “Who am I praying to that I feel so dead inside? And I realized that I thought of God like a banker in Boise in a Banana Republic suit—nice guy, wants the best for me, but wouldn’t understand me to the end of the world.

A friend asked me: How would you like to imagine God and I said like a wizened old artist who has made great things and suffered its joys and who really wants me to make great things, too.

Lately, I riff on the idea of God like a fool. I thought the other day. I am riding an emotional roller coaster. And rather than delete this cliché, I extended it. But I’m not going to fall. God is like the lap bar on the roller coaster.

Another cliché. God is not a noun but a verb. God is not the object in the sentence but the active relation between subject and object.

Put another way: It doesn’t matter what you pray to, so long as it’s not you. You can pray to an animal, you can pray to a UFO, you can pray to a record that changed your life. You can pray to a doorknob. You can pray whenever you come into a room—Let me be changed.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is a curator, essayist, and author, most recently, of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

A Bar Mitzvah without Torah-- Who's in? By Steve Bodow

The liturgical center of a traditional Bar Mitzvah is the 13­-year­-old’s personal confrontation with a piece of Old Testament ­ the Torah portion. You learn it in Hebrew. You reflect on it. And you craft a speech explaining what the passage means to you, your family, your friends, and most importantly, to the handful of 13­-year-­old girls who, amazingly, agreed to come to your big day.

(from audience:)

LORI: Steven! We came because you invited us!

SB: Hey, Lori. That’s Lori Bring, everyone. Back in 1980 she was one of the four girls who attended my Bar Mitzvah. And the only one I was really friends with.

LORI: And the only one who was Jewish!

That’s a whole other topic.

So to give you a sense how this tradition welcomed me into Jewish adulthood, I’m going to read you a lightly edited version of my Torah portion, 14th chapter of Leviticus, Parsha Metzorah.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the law of the person afflicted with leprosy.”

Leprosy. My Bar Mitzvah was about leprosy.

“The person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool, and some hyssop. Slaughter one of the birds. Take the live bird, the stick, the wool, and the hyssop, and dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, which should be in an earthenware vessel. The Kohen will then sprinkle this mixture seven times upon the leper, and then release the live, blood­soaked bird into an open field...”

(to Lori:) Do you remember any of this?

LORI: Not really. All I remember was my dress, it was awful (details) and that Kim B of all people was there.

SB: I know. Kim B!

LORI: How did you get her to come?

SB: I have no idea! She was so pretty and so not Jewish. And then here I am introducing her to my heritage by reciting a weird magic cure for a super­ gross skin disease. “Hey, Kim, did I mention that the leper can go back into camp once he ritually bathes after shaving off his hair ­ all of his hair?”

LORI: Steven, this is disgusting!

SB: My point exactly.

So, to our God’s perhaps not­so­medically­sound treatment for these poor people; add a Cantor who couldn’t give a big Yiddish shit about anything to do with Parsha Metzorah other than the smoothness of my rote­ memorized phonetic Hebrew chanting of it mix in no education or context for why God and Moses were taking time to discuss leper purification; and simmer for six months in a deep bath of pubescent hormones... -and you’ve got a recipe for enough alienating busywork to, hypothetically, contribute to putting a young man off synagogue Judaism for several decades.

Where this leads me tonight is to this thought: If I had it to do over again, I would seriously rethink the “Torah portion” portion of the Bar Mitzvah. In other words: Could we have Bar Mitzvahs without so much Bible?

The Bar Mitzvah is supposed to mark the point of maturation, when a Jew becomes able to take responsibility for his or her actions. So if you’re going to spend months focusing on a piece of text, why not choose one that can more naturally pertain to that? Something that makes them reflect on the decisions and actions they might take, and why they’ll take them. I’d still have this text be something Jewish; a Bar Mitzvah should relate directly to Judaism. Teachers would curate a kind of core curriculum that they and students could together choose from. Fiction, non­fiction…. There could be film. And as in the traditional tradition, you’d take a little section of a key text, read it closely, talk about it.

I was looking for an example on my own bookshelf … I came up with some Philip Roth. Chapter 2 of his great counter­history “The Plot Against America,” is this little set piece called “Loudmouth Jew.”

It’s 1941. FDR has just lost the presidency in a landslide to Charles Lindbergh, who is of course a huge anti­Semite. And most of the country is in love with him. The Roths take a long­planned trip to Washington DC, and find that Lindbergh’s election has caused some sort of top to pop, and America’s great Goyish majority is suddenly unleashing all this apparently pent­up hostility towards Jews. The Roths get kicked out of hotels and hassled in restaurants and the police won’t help them... It’s the author’s dark fantasy on the illusion of assimilation, of paranoia justified, and what actions his fictional parents ­ responsible, grown­up Jews ­ might take in the face of grave injustice.

For a 13­-year-old in 1980 or 2013, that chapter gives a lot more to chew on than a Bronze Age prescription for a bacterial infection.

My point is this: There is huge potential for Bar Mitzvah kids to engage more meaningfully with the great Jewish tradition of textual analysis. Maybe let’s realize that the Old Testament isn’t always going to be the best way to fulfill this potential.

That said, I was in a sense lucky back then to get the portion I did ­ because just a few verses away is where the writers of Leviticus teach us how to treat a man who, quote, “issues a sickly and unnatural seminal discharge.”

No 13­-year­-old should have to contemplate such a thing, let alone chant it in Hebrew to Kim Brunner.

Steve Bodow is co-executive producer and former head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which he has plagued since 2002. He has also directed theater (Elevator Repair Service), written for magazines, and played a lot of Werewolf.

What’s in a Speech? By David Katznelson

For the last few months I has desperately tried to find my Bar Mitzvah speech….

I have no idea where it is and I can’t remember it. That being said, I can’t remember my torah or half torah portion either, which makes a little more sense since I could only orate the Hebrew back in 1982, reading the letters, chanting along, but not knowing the language enough to be able to translate anything.

But I read my speech in English and I wrote it pretty much by myself.  Yet I cannot remember it, and I cannot find it.

By looking for it, I DID find other aspects of my year of becoming a man.  I saw my first concert that year, thanks to my brother Steve who took me to see The Greg Kihn band at the Greek.  I found my top 10 song list for that year, which featured the Clash, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and yes, The Human League.  I watched my first 49er Super Bowl win…when they were still destined to be the actual SAN FRANCISCO 49ers for decades.

But the speech where I wrestle with the Torah for the first time in a public setting? No where to be found.

I DID find my Bar Mitzvah certificate, by chance taped in my scrap book on the other side of my Town School certificate of Merit for my entry in the learning resource center bulletin board contest.  But I could not remember or find my Bar Mitzvah Speech.

In doing some research, I did open some doors to my memory. offers a service to figure out what any portion of the week is for any year.  It was from that site that I remembered that I was blessed with two portions…B’har and B’hukkotai…for those of you who have ever wondered how we cram 54 torah portions into 52 weeks.  There are always a few 13 year olds who take the lunar calendar hit.

And clicking through, I was reminded that my torah portions contain no plot. I got no familial sexual relations, no destruction of the world, humans turning to salt, whale swallowing, plagues. Nothing but rules of how to live….rules chanted by a seventh grader on how to live in pre-temple times.

I got the eye-opening truths about what would happen if I do not take this manhood thing seriously, and follow the rules set down by my father, grandfather and forefathers.  And with it, I did get some mighty biblical speak.  As my portion reads:

“And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. 22 I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle.

“And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, 24You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes. I will spurn you. 31”

God must have been truly worried about me to bless me with such a portion.  And while I have not followed the 613 commandments (did you know there were that many of them) as closely as I should, I have developed a major taste in Zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic sci-fi sagas.  Could that be the gift of my Bar Mitzvah?

To wax torahetically for a minute, now that I have a son and daughter, that one line truly disturbs me: eating the flesh of my sons and daughters.  I realize the rational.  We needed as a people to be kept in line.  But what sick mind other than that of Goya would think this line up? And how is a 13 year old supposed to truly digest this?

So I might not have found my Bar Mitzvah speech, but I had definitely located the topic for it, if I was to have preached it today. And maybe THAT was the gift of my Bar Mitzvah.

Or was my gift the simple yet epic satisfaction of merely completing the Bar Mitzvah…studying for it with the elder cantor Israel Reich and the legendary Rabbi Saul White? Was it remembering the pride beaming from my parents and grandparents, and doing the Hora with friends and family members, many of whom are no longer on this earth.  Maybe the gift was being an important person for a day, in the community of my relative youth.

But becoming a man?  I was not close.  Maybe that really was not the point of this type of maturity.  Maybe it was a marker to go back to….to remember and cherish…and to constantly question and redefine.

I would like to thank my family, my friends, my Rabbi, Cantor and Temple board members for making this Bar Mitzvah possible.

David Katznelson is a Grammy- nominated producer, independent– record label head, and problematic vinyl collector. He is the cofounder of the San Francisco Appreciation Society and the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. He is also director of strategy for the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation.

Becoming a Man: My Bar Mitzvah Speech Thirty Years Later By Amichai Lau Lavie

I grew up Orthodox in Israel. By the time of my bar mitzvah—in April 1982—I was living in New York City, a sweet kid in a polyester suit. A little on the chubby side, perhaps. My dark blond mop of hair covered a pimpled forehead.

Being Orthodox had its advantages. Chanting my bar mitzvah portion was no problem. I rattled it off with ease. The problem was the speech. There was so much I wanted to say, but my English wasn’t good enough, and anyway, my speech had been written for me by my uncle, a renowned rabbi, who gave me a tired presentation expounding on the laws of charity.

Thirty years on, I would like to think that if the choice had been mine, and I had been able to summon the courage, this is the speech I would have delivered at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

As I write it, I imagine my forty-three-year-old self as a man in a black suit with a trim beard, standing directly behind that chubby bar mitzvah boy and visible to him alone.

Esteemed rabbis, my dear parents, family, and friends:

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you for coming to celebrate with me on this day on which I become a man. Many of you have traveled very far to get here. My parents and I appreciate it very much.

My Bar Mitzvah portion, Achrei Mot, is about laws and limitations. Laws, I understand, are necessary, because without them things go wrong, and people can get hurt. The portion begins with the reminder of what had happened to the two sons of Aaron the high priest, and how they died by a “strange fire” because they did not observe the law, and were not careful enough when they entered the holy Tent of Meeting.

There are many different kinds of laws in this portion. These laws, I was taught, were given to us by God so that each of us can live a holy life, as part of a bigger, healthy society.

I started learning how to chant my Torah portion two years ago, back when we were still in Israel, from a cassette tape. I played it over and over again to memorize the verses by heart. At first, I didn’t think about what the words meant.

But over time I started paying more attention, and I began to wonder about the meaning of some of these laws, especially the ones about not seeing people naked.

There is a list, in this portion, of relatives that you are not supposed to see naked.

I figured out that “seeing someone naked” was a euphemism—a biblical way to talk about “having sex.” But I couldn’t understand why some relatives are on the list and some aren’t. And I had other questions, also, about some of the other laws.

My teacher, Rabbi Motti, didn’t want to talk about this too much. He said I’d understand when I am more grown up. When I become a man.

And I guess that day is today.

I don’t know if I’m as grown up as my teacher intended, and if I’m really already a man, but as I turn thirteen today, I think I’m just old enough to ask you all a question about these laws, and about one of them in particular that I’ve been thinking a lot about.

The room is stilled. My mother, up in the women’s balcony, is looking at me with a grave, strange look. My father, in the front row, turns to my uncle who is seated next to him and whispers something in his ear. The uncle shakes his head, confused.

After the list of relatives one is not supposed to see naked there are a few other laws that describe prohibited sexual behaviors. One of the laws forbids sex with animals. Another of the laws prohibits sexual relations between men. It’s called an abomination. And whoever does it can be punished by death.


I’m sorry if this is weird, and maybe neither appropriate nor the speech you expected me to make today. But a few months ago, when we walked home from this synagogue, I asked my father what it means to be a man, and he told me that to be a man is to be honest and not be afraid of the truth.

And the truth is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this law, and it makes me afraid and ashamed to think about it and to talk about it, but it also makes me angry and confused.

I know it’s wrong to question God and the Torah, and maybe I’m too young to understand. But I don’t think that the law about abomination is fair, and I don’t think that people who break it deserve to die.

Today, you say, I am a man. But in fact I think that it already happened.

I think that I became a man almost a year ago, when I kissed for the first time, and felt like a grown-up.

I kissed another boy, a friend of mine, a friend I love.

It made us both afraid and nervous, but it didn’t feel dirty, or wrong, or like an abomination, whatever that is. It felt holy, whatever that is. It felt right.

DON’T LOOK UP. DON’T LOOK UP. My mouth is dry. My heart beats faster than it ever has. I am aware my life will never be the same again. I read on.

I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.

You are all looking at me now, and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve held this secret, this abomination in my stomach, long enough.

If today I am a man, then on this day I tell the truth and face it, like a man. And you, who came from near and far, if you really love me, will love me still, I hope, just the way I am.

I know the Torah says it’s wrong.

I know it’s disappointing to you, my parents and siblings, relatives, friends.

But maybe the Torah does not mean what I’m feeling, because I don’t think—I don’t believe—that God thinks I am dirty, or sinning, or an abomination. Because isn’t that how God created me, in God’s own image, just the way I am?

Today I become a man, and I am who I am, with all of my questions, and doubts, and hard choices, and truths.

I think that’s what becoming a man is all about.

I want to thank you, my parents, for helping me so much in preparing for today, and for being the best parents possible. I’m sorry if I surprised you now, but I hope that you understand. Thank you to my brothers, and my sister, for coming all the way from Israel for this occasion and for always being there for me.

My family are all looking at the floor.

Thank you for listening, and for joining me on this most important day of my life.

Shabbat Shalom. 

I close the folder and dare to look up. Will somebody say something? Someone please hug me. My mother is crying. My father still stares down. Don’t hate me. Please say something.

And there I stand, thirty years later, placing a hand on my thirteen-year-old self’s shoulder and whispering, softly, “It’s going to be all right.”

Originally published in Unscrolled and

Amichai Lau Lavie is is the founding director of Storahtelling Inc and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul. An Israeli-born Jewish educator, writer, and performer, he is currently a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.